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THE BISHOP'S VOICE: Opening our hearts to Christ

12/16/2016 | Comments

When you listen once again to St. Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus — the gospel that is proclaimed at the Christmas Midnight Mass — give some attention to the situation of the innkeeper. 

Joseph was compelled by decree of the emperor to travel from Nazareth in the north of Palestine to Bethlehem in the south, there to register for the census.  It would be a difficult journey under any circumstances, but with Mary his wife about to give birth it was particularly arduous.  

With so many travelers on the road at that time, innkeepers could afford to be choosy about whom they allowed to stay with them.  It is not unlikely that the law of supply and demand was operative, and the few rooms available went to those who were able to pay the most.  When Mary and Joseph knocked on the door, it was immediately clear to the innkeeper that these would not prove to be his best customers.

Perhaps we should not be too quick to condemn that innkeeper. After all, it wasn’t anything personal. He had nothing against Mary and Joseph. It was just business. 

But we might also wonder if the innkeeper ever learned who it was that was knocking on his door that first Christmas night.  Did he ever come to know Jesus, about to be born in his stable?

It was not just that one innkeeper who turned Jesus away.  St. John begins his gospel (read at the third Mass of Christmas) by proclaiming that “the world did not know who [Jesus] was.  To his own he came, yet his own did not accept him” (Jn. 1:10-11). Jesus, through whom the world was created, could not find a home in his own world.  Throughout the years of his public ministry Jesus would be treated — at least by the religious leadership — as an outsider, as one not to be trusted.

Understandably, we do not hold in the highest esteem the innkeeper and all those who would subsequently relate to Jesus as someone who just did not belong. But it is at this point that we must remember why this gospel story has been recorded and passed down through every generation of believers. The gospels are not simply historical accounts of the events of long ago.  The gospels — indeed, all of Sacred Scripture — are written so that we might encounter the living Christ today, as he comes among us in so many ways, not least of which is in the guise of the outsider.

Is it really that much of a mystery as to why the Catholic Church calls us to reach out in love and fellowship to the “foreigners” in our midst? These foreigners are many, but today the foreigner comes to us most noticeably as the immigrant. And that immigrant, that “alien,” is Jesus. Is he to be turned away again, this time by us? 

Shouldn’t it be clear as to why the Catholic Church calls for the reform of our immigration laws so that our brothers and sisters can find a place to live in safety, with opportunity to care for their families? As Catholics, we are not about supporting illegal immigration, just as our ministry to the imprisoned is not an espousal of crime. We are only about finding ways that immigrants can be welcomed legally. Isn’t this what we have been about as Americans since the founding of our country?

There are more than enough voices in our society, some of them Catholic, that are loud and strident in their insistence that our relationships with the immigrant must be guided only by civil law. As long as the law is satisfied, many say, our responsibilities toward the illegal immigrant are fulfilled. Not so — and not so for Jesus, either. It is love that fulfills all law. This is what Jesus taught. “Christ died out of love for us, while we were still ‘enemies.’ The Lord asks us to love as he does, even our enemies, to make ourselves the neighbor of those farthest away, and to love children and the poor as Christ himself” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1825). 

In the midst of an otherwise volatile and angry debate about which immigration laws will best serve our country, it is our role as Catholics, as men and women of faith, to be the voices of compassion as well as reason. Illegal immigration is wrong and often very dangerous. Whatever solutions to this problem are found, those solutions must be informed by genuine charity. The well-being of millions of our brothers and sisters — children of God — depend on our enacting new and humane immigration laws.

I ask Almighty God to bless all of you in a most special way in this holy season.  I will remember you in my Christmas Masses, and I ask that you pray for me.  And let us all remember our Savior, a migrant himself, unwelcomed and without a place to stay. Let’s not turn him away again.

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